50 Years of Illustration: Review

50 years of Illustration cover

50 years of Illustration cover

50 Years of illustration (..is it really?)

I remember back in 2010 when the author, Lawrence Zeegen mentioned in passing that he had been in discussion with a publisher about a project covering illustration over the last half century. I must confess I was jealous, how wonderful to be able to have an excuse to catalogue all the great names and to re-evaluate who belonged in which era or grouping.

Fast forward to 2014 and several weeks ago the book itself hit the shelves, as they say in Publishing parlance and after several fruitless searches I came across a copy. In all fairness I had seen the publisher’s web page which allows you a brief dip in, so I knew the cover and several spreads, but I still wanted to see who had made the final selection. It had been made clear to me that the book was to have a global reach, so countries such as France, Japan and Germany would, alongside the US have representative inclusions. This makes complete sense given the global need for foreign co editions.

I could second guess who would have to be in the final selection. We knew Gerald Scarf would be there but why isn’t Ralph Steadman? Why for that matter isn’t Shirley Hughes, Posy Simmons, Peter Brookes or indeed David Gentleman, surely not careless omissions? There has to be a judicious and sometimes ruthless editing process and after all this is the author’s choice and selection.

Ok give me a go and who would I have liked to have seen included and who weren’t? I could say but I won’t, who I would like to see removed, lets just say some are very lucky to be there at all.

My choice, well Charles Keeping for one, perhaps George Adamson, Judith Kerr deserves her place and other renowned children’s illustrators. In some ways Childens Book illustrators get a raw deal, yes theres Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs and Michael Foreman deservedly making it in but why no Janet Alberg or John Burningham or even Axel Schefler? It may just be possible to have a complete volume of artists who were never selected, like that alternative venture by frustrated artists the RA turned down, ‘Not the Royal Academy Show’?

Well that’s now said and done so lets talk about the book itself, I’ve tried as hard as I might but I still don’t like the cover, an illustration using a typographical image/pattern by Jeff Fisher, lets face it he’s done far better pieces and it’s a shame that this one looks so unremarkable. Again for a cover its difficult to choose one image and which illustrator could you justifiably elevate to that honour, you certainly wouldn’t want a collage of pictures nor a single iconic image such as Milton Glaser’s Bob Dylan? I would have liked to have seen the author himself design the cover, after all though he’s an illustrator and he’s not featured in the book but he still ought to merit a presence.

It’s interesting to see a range of comic artists included but if you’re going to show Crumb then Leo Baxendale should be in there, I’d also include Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, they had a profound influence on modern culture.

The book offers a historical snapshot of the intervening decades and is very much an honest if in parts a questionable selection, Zeegen doesn’t flinch from including artists I would have avoided on aesthetic grounds and it would be hard not to argue with the first three decades covered. Its later on I have problems with the choice and order of the selection. Why does Joost Swarte appear in the nineties when his decade was surely the eighties? It’s certainly easier to cherry pick those from the past who are well established rather than try to select out of the more recent past, those who may merit a place.

I would recommend this book, its well documented and researched. The range of reproduced images in one volume is impressive but just don’t try and digest them all in one sitting.

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